BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) — For decades, coal communities bustling with miners and their families filled the landscape of southern West Virginia.
As the years have gone by, the industry has changed — machines replaced men, strikes, layoffs, closures, environmental and safety concerns hit hard — and today many of those communities exist in name only.
But the feelings and emotions, the details of living day-to-day as a miner, wife or even a widow, have been preserved in “Voices From the Appalachian Coalfields.”
The book, a collaboration between the late Mike Yarrow and his wife Ruth, features free verse transcriptions of many of the interviews the couple conducted from 1977 to 1986.
Ruth said Mike was studying sociology of work at the time and his brother Doug, a photographer, whose mining photos are featured in the book, told him he would find southern West Virginia an interesting place for his studies.
“Doug was living in Beckley and he said this is where people were striking for decent working conditions,” Ruth recalled.
Mike visited West Virginia many times over the next several years and Ruth said the entire family eventually relocated to Beckley for a year. She participated in much of the project, and would often speak with a wife while Mike interviewed a husband.
Initial interviews, Ruth said, were conducted with people Doug had already formed relationships with. But at the conclusion of each, a new bond and trust was formed and additional sources were found through recommendation.
“That was quite amazing,” she recalled. “It was by word-of-mouth. They would say somebody up the next hollow had some good stories to tell and you ought to go talk to them.”
No real interview plan was set going in for each sit-down. Ruth said that was never required. Instead of questions, she and Mike went in with open minds and alert ears.
“I think what we learned was that we didn’t really need to ask a lot,” she said. “We’d ask, ‘what you do every day? What are you concerned about? What do you enjoy?’ We learned to listen because people don’t really need questions. They know about their lives.
“If you listen, they’ll tell you very important things.”
Like Tim, a miner whose interview is titled “Laid-Off.”
My father was a miner. Going underground and digging coal had real meaning, continuance of life, one generation to the next.
Going underground and digging coal had real meaning,
continuance of life, one generation to the next.
Tim goes on to explain how he enjoyed learning his family “skill,” thriving on the danger and intimacy of depending on his co-workers. He worked long hours — often six days a week — and made a good living. Until his mine was shut down.
I’ve been to 7-11 stores, I’ve been to every hotel, everything conceivable I’ve applied for. I ended up mowing grass. When you don’t have nothing, $10 is a lot of money.
everything conceivable I’ve applied for.
I ended up mowing grass.
When you don’t have nothing, $10 is a lot of money.
And in “An Eye on Each Other,” Eliza, a miner’s wife, talks about the significance of the tight-knit coal community, but makes special mention of the difficult financial times many families faced.
We still have the tight families.
But there’s so many people that’s out of work in this area.
All the churches in this community
They have what they call the food pantry.
And the people that have, donate food and money.
When all was said and done, the Yarrows conducted 225 interviews. Ruth said Mike began transcribing and fitting them into free-verse several years ago in hopes of publishing a book.
The free verse method, she said, is a way of “distilling” the information people had shared with them.
“One of the poems in the book is 3 ½ pages long, but I had 75 pages of transcripts from that interview,” she said. “I picked out the part that seemed the most compelling and showed the most emotion. The really deep parts.”
When Mike passed away in 2014, Ruth said she decided to see the project through to completion.
She said she believes the book is not only important because it brings the project to a close, but also because it preserves a piece of history.
“People gave a lot to bring us that fossil fuel for all of those years,” she said. “But what’s most impressive to me is the courage and the humor and the dignity that they had as they did that work.”
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